Angela Dalle Vacche
Professor Emerita of Film Studies
Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta
1. Why did you decide to study in London, at the London College of Printing?
In the mid 80s I was 20 and I was living in Milan. Yet I was attracted to London, a city I knew quite well because, in my teenage years, I used to spend time there whenever I could. I was interested in photography and one summer, while in London, I looked around for courses to do with photography and film; I applied to a course and I got a place at the London College of Printing. So I never went back to Italy and stayed on. I lived in London for five years, three of which I studied at that Film and Television degree course. I loved living in London because of what the city offered in terms of diversity, counter-culture, experimental cinema, inspiration… it was the 80s and some very interesting British cinema was coming out at the time.
2. When did you realize that film-making was truly your vocation?
Since I was a young girl, I was taking pictures of myself; at the College of Printing in London I learned how to develop and print photo film, how to shoot on video and film, and how to edit. I did not know exactly what I wanted to do within filmmaking, but I enjoyed working with a visual language. So, I learned by doing, and I discovered my vocation during those years, also inspired by the films we watched at school, such as documentary and experimental cinema, thanks to some exceptional teachers like Laura Mulvey.
3. Were you anxious when you decided to make a film about your mother? How did you find the strength to explore in public such a complex topic? What or who sustained you in this very personal project?
For many years I watched my family home movies over and over again in order to familiarize myself with my mother’s face. I hardly knew her in real life as a child. Making the film was a gradual process. It was after I read my mother’s journals and letters that I started to imagine composing these materials into a film narrative. This was happening after the film school and after I'd gone back to my hometown in Milan, so I knew how to deal with film material and visual language. This is what made the film possible; also, at that point I was in my early 30s, a young woman eager to know about her origins and to get to know about her mother’s legacy. So the film is the result of a deep immersion in these private materials: home movies, photos, letters, and diaries. I was prompted by a very personal urge to reconnect my identity to my mother’s and I happened to do it with film because these film reels existed and someone preserved my mother’s writing. So my film narration met a private need and it was never intended for a public audience. The public dimension of this work came afterwords, once the film was finished. I worked at the film away from my hometown and away from my family, together with a woman friend of mine who is the editor of the film. We worked together independently, from home. I was also supported by a group of friends and colleagues who at some point helped me to find funding that allowed me to grant the film a professional production standard. So the film grew in the editing room and was shared, while in progress, with this affectionate group of supporters that became the first audience of the film.
4. In your work with Charlotte Rampling, you rely on entomology, the natural history museum, and on evolutionary theory. Were you inspired by Chris Marker’s essay films? And how these motifs apply to your views on cinema and femininity?
I got to know Chris Marker’s work while I was in film school; I loved his films and I am sure that they somehow influenced me along the way, but I cannot say exactly which and how. I am certainly inspired by the so-called essay film, it is a kind of narration that I find compelling both as a filmmaker and as a spectator.
In the film All about you Charlotte Rampling’s character is more at ease with animals than people and she's trying to learn from animals, by observing their way of relating to one another. The topic of this film is how to come to terms with emotional turmoil and how to deal with relationships.
5. Charlotte Rampling is not only a professional actress, but a European star. Can you tell us what was it like to work with her?
It was wonderful! She is a very generous actress, a sensitive and smart woman, warm and lots of fun to be with… she had been impressed by my film on my mother, Un’ora sola ti vorrei - For one more hour with you. This is the reason why she was interested in working with me on a new film project. Even though she's a star, she's no capricious “diva” in a negative sense. She was open and helpful.
6. What is your approach when you work with non-professional performers? Do you prepare them? How much do you improvise? Do they know their lines ahead of time? How do you cast them?
In my fiction film I have not worked with non-professional actors: the women interviewed in All about you are real women not playing a part. So there was no need to do any preparation since they are being themselves; other people appearing in the film are professional actors.
7. Social class is very important in the documentaries of Cecilia Mangini. Is it fair to say that you tend more towards an introspective search, a lyrical atmosphere?
Cecilia Mangini was active in an epoch different to mine and at that time (1950-1970), the sociological perspective on life was very common and important. My films are from the years 2000. Thus they perhaps belong to a time when personal introspection or a private perspective is more common in narratives, whether in film or literature.
8. In your collage film “We Also Want Roses,” what are you trying to suggest with “roses” in the title?
The title of the film is a quote from the longer slogan which goes: “we want bread and roses too.” This slogan was first used in a demonstration of women textile workers in early 1900. “Bread” means a guaranteed salary and “roses” mean better conditions at work. Women's movements in the 1970s picked up from that legacy and used the shorter version of this slogan in their demonstrations. Women then were asking not only for equality at work and in society but for a higher quality of life in their relationships as well. I saw this sentence during public rallies and written on banners from the 70S (seen on photos). All this inspired the title of my film. It seemed to fit very well with the atmosphere that I wanted to convey. On one hand “we want” is very affirmative and on the other, “roses” evoke a lighter and even romantic dimension related to the women’s struggle.
9. What do you think of the current situation in regard to Italian women filmmakers?
In Italy there is a growing number of women film directors; there seems to be many women making documentaries and that makes me think that the documentary film world is more open in terms of production to women and also that women may be able to express their vision better in a narrative that engages strong relationships such as the documentary mode. However it is a well known fact that women in the commercial film industry are paid less then men in the very same positions and with the same skills; important and useful data has been collected to show this discrimination and injustice. Still today women are more often editors or script-writers than directors of photography or grips.
10. You worked on national borders and migration routes in the past. Do you think you might return to this topic?
I have worked on this topic for the mise en scène of a contemporary music opera by the Italian composer Mauro Montalbetti titled Hayè, le parole la notte. In that multimedia production I used stock footage film and contemporary video projections on stage, creating a connection between the different historical layers of the narrative that focused on contemporary migrations.
11. You have a very personal relationship with Laura Mulvey, a major scholar in feminist film theory known all over the world. When you were working on Anna Piaggi, have you ever thought about another feminist theorist, Mary Ann Doane (University of California at Berkeley), in regard to her well-known concept of masquerade? In other words, through her own masquerade of fashion choices, do you think Anna Piaggi reveals or hides herself? Or what is she doing or performing exactly?
Mary Ann Doane is not a reference for me. In fact, unfortunately, I do not know her work (I will make up for it!). I think Anna Piaggi was playing around with narratives, both in her writings and in her outfits. She created associations and connections between the arts and fashion. In her writing she was anticipatory of trends and was highlighting cultural references by looking at fashion designers. She had fun dressing up the way she did, provoking reactions in the very conservative fashion world. She also challenged stereotypical notions of femininity, beauty, and seductiveness.
12. I noticed that your montages follow at least two methods: the first is associational; the second one is based on eye-line matches. This second approach sustains a more classical narrative logic, it helps with chronological explanations. Can you think of additional montage approaches you have already used or would like to use in the future?
It is true that editing offers many possibilities in giving life to narrative structures and montage techniques are potentially infinite… so the choices in the editing room depend very much on the nature of the filmic material. When working with found footage one is often confronted with material that is already edited; you may not have all the shots that you would like. And some of these shots do not have the necessary duration…. Often these kinds of limitations inspire solutions. This is the reason why in my films many different editing techniques are applied. It all depends on the fact that I may be working with documentary style footage or using material from a fiction film, or relying on photographs and animation; all these different visual languages contain within themselves already a style and a structure. These features influence the new editing of the film. It is possible to combine more traditional editing (following the direction of the glance) with more experimental and associative montage. So, I would say that every project sets its own style and technique. The great thing about digital editing is that you can try out as many different options you want, but it is indeed true that montage starts in the filmmaker's mind first.
13. In the collage film, camera movement is limited to pans, angles. Tracking shots can be very expensive and compete with cuts. Have you ever thought of working a bit more with camera movement in dialogue with editing? Have you considered using a steady cam to tell a story? Or perhaps you have already done so?
Whenever I produced my own footage (both for fiction and documentaries), I used both fixed camera and camera movements also in conjunction with all really pre-existing film material. I have never felt the need to employ a steady cam for the type of story that I like to tell with images. I'm not very attracted by the look of steady cam camera movements, I prefer handheld camera movements, but you never know… I may in the future want to shoot an action movie where a steady cam might be needed!
14. Why did you choose to make a film about nuns? With all her books on the table, your protagonist, Valeria, seems more motivated by an intellectual rather than a mystical search. I realize that the name of Simone Weil comes up for good reasons. How did you meet Valeria? And what is she doing now? Did she find her place in the world?
The reason why I wanted to make a documentary about cloistered nuns is expressed in the film itself: what is the motivation behind such a life choice? I looked at the life of those women from my own secular perspective and standpoint. There was not a religious motivation behind it, rather an existential curiosity. And that type of personal approach led me towards Valeria and made me interested in her more than in other young nuns; I could relate to her intellectual and musical references. This made the dialogue between us possible. I met her at the convent which she was leaving at the time, 15 years ago. After she left the convent, she went back to her home town in the south of Italy; then we met again one year after the making of the film and we watched it together. At the time she was trying to find her way and I am sure she has found it by now.
15. Your sound-tracks are extremely sophisticated. Do you consider yourself more visual or acoustic as a person? Which kinds of books do you read? Do you consider yourself a feminist?
I am definitely a very visual person but I care a lot about sound and music so I pay a lot of attention to the sound design and music compositions for my films; I always try to get great sound designers and musicians involved in my film productions. I prefer to read essays rather than fictions, but then again that depends…. I think I grew up in feminist terms with my film work: some people consider my films feminist. I guess they are to certain extent. This is not because they were intended to be feminist from the start, but because the vision they express could not be anything else. For me this sensibility is the only possible and necessary vision to express.
16. What do you think of the situation of women today in Italy in comparison to the challenges and the legal advances described in your films?
I have made the film We want roses too, on Italian women’s experiences in the 70s, in 2007 because I wanted to reflect upon the recent history of women's movements in Italy and on the political and personal legacy which this period left with the younger generations. What I thought then, in 2007, does not differ much from what I think today in 2021 in relation to women's condition and position in society. A lot has happened in the last two decades with feminist movements in Italy too, but women in my view are still very far from gaining the respect they deserve, both in the private and public sphere.
To cite this interview, please use the following reference: Vacche, Angela D. (2022): «Marazzi's Interview», The Gynocine Project, Barbara Zecchi, ed. www.gynocine.com